Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn’s seminal sixties shoot-’em-up revisited
Clyde Barrow could be fairly described as having a short fuse. By the time he cashed in his chips at age 24 he’d been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of at least fourteen men. Bonnie Parker probably never killed anyone, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, and she was one hell of an enabler. So how could an honest film about such a pair be anything but a brief and sordid affair? And how could an exciting, mythic film about them be anything but a lie?
Somehow, producer Warren Beatty, director Arthur Penn, and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton pulled it off, with the help of career-making performances from Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael Pollard, and Estelle Parsons. Almost forty years after its release, Bonnie & Clyde has only solidified its position as the Sixties movie, the film that shattered the old “family entertainment” Hollywood once and for all and allowed American films to grow up.1
Starting Out in the Fifties
David Newman and Robert Benton were young men about town in fifties Manhattan, writing for Esquire back in the day when that magazine actually had a reason for existence. They became fascinated, almost to obsession, by nouvelle vague films from France like Jean-Luc Godard‘s Breathless, but their absolute fave raves were François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player.
The nouvelle vague took the conventions of the American gangster and noir films and bleached them in French existentialism.2 The important thing is not to care, because things just happen. If you don’t care what happens, then you can’t get hurt. If you do care, well, you get a bullet in the back courtesy of that cold-hearted cunt you were dumb enough to fall for (Jean-Luc Belmondo’s fate in Breathless) or your sweet, adoring girlfriend gets one courtesy of some fun-loving gangsters (Charles Aznavour’s fate in Shoot the Piano Player).3
Newman and Benton decided that they wanted to write a screenplay too, and what they came up with was a combination of the two Truffaut films, with just a bit of a tour through Waxahachie, Texas, Benton’s hometown. Benton’s father had attended Bonnie’s and Clyde’s funerals,4 and Benton remembered kids dressing up as Bonnie and Clyde for Halloween. According to Benton, there were rumors that Clyde recruited gang members to join him and Bonnie for threeways,5 in the manner (somewhat) of Jules and Jim and Catherine, while the Barrow Gang’s reputation for down-home hospitality toward hostages fit well with the funny, murderous gangsters in Shoot the Piano Player.
The two writers worked out a 75-page treatment in marathon sessions at Benton’s place, listening to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.6 They were able to show it to Truffaut, who was interested, and suggested a number of changes to the script. However, Truffaut decided he was too busy to direct the film7 and suggested that Godard might be interested. Godard was interested, but there were some communication problems, and that fell through too.8
But meanwhile Truffaut had mentioned something about the screenplay to actress Leslie Caron, who then mentioned it to boyfriend Warren Beatty, hoping that he might buy the rights so that they could star in the film together.
Poor Leslie! How could a Frenchwoman be so naïve? She was six years older than Warren, and the thought of her trying to get her bouche around a Texas twang is trés amusant but also trés imposible. Sad to relate, Warren took the screenplay and ran.
Beatty took the script to director Arthur Penn, best known for his great success on Broadway with The Miracle Worker, which he also brought to the screen. Beatty and Penn had worked together on a financially disastrous “art” film, Mickey One (1964), unfortunately not available on home video.9 Penn was hip to the nouvelle vague, but he had some foreign influences of his own, notably Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Penn was fascinated by Kurosawa’s approach to violent action and violent death.
In his 1954 classic Seven Samurai Kurosawa used alternating sequences of slow motion and “real time” to drive home the impact of the killing of a thief. In the big battle scenes between the villagers and the bandits he used fixed cameras operating with telephoto lenses that allowed him to bring viewers inside the action. Kurosawa had other tricks up his sleeve, like the severed limbs in Yojimbo, the arrow-through-the-neck freeze frame that concludes Throne of Blood, and the “exploding artery” at the climax of Sanjuro.
It’s likely that Penn picked up something else from the Japanese director. Kurosawa intended Seven Samurai to be an epic, a tribute to the suffering and endurance of the Japanese people. He deliberately used symbols of “eternal Japan,” the hills and villages, the fields of rice heavy with grain, a beautiful young woman combing her long black hair.
In a more self-conscious era, Penn could not be so direct. In any event, there isn’t much that people think of as “eternal East Texas.”10 But over and over again Penn selects quietly evocative settings for the action, and we see the characters play out their brief, desperate lives against the immense, silent dignity of the earth.11’
Trapped in the Sixties
By the time Warren Beatty got his hands on the script for Bonnie & Clyde, even the Brits were making films that could be called “adult” without quotation marks. Films like Tom Jones (1963) and Darling (1966) depicted perfectly normal people going about their lives and fornicating without either suffering agonies of guilt or being run over by a steamroller. But Hollywood still struggled in an agony of indecision, abandoning the outright “family fare” that had characterized the famous films of the thirties, forties, and fifties but still clinging fanatically to the fig leaf of middle-class morality.
Beatty had gotten his launch into stardom in one of the bastard pseudo-shockers of the era, Splendor in the Grass (1961), which warned against the dangers of sexual repression without actually endorsing sexual gratification. Penn had just finished directing The Chase (1966), a bloated Southern Gothic about lecherous, racist Texans, while Faye Dunaway broke into pictures in a third, Hurry Sundown (1967), best known to bad movie buffs as the one where Jane Fonda blows Michael Caine’s saxophone.
Ostensibly “realistic,” these films carried with them all the conventions of fifties Broadway. They were talky and theatrical. The action led up to big speeches by the lead characters, speeches directed at the audience rather than the other characters.12 Hollywood production values — perfect lighting, perfect makeup, and perfectly composed shots — made every scene look like it was happening on stage, even if it had been shot in the Gobi Desert.13
Bonnie & Clyde changed all of that. Somehow, Penn and Beatty decided they would use Benton and Newman’s script to break every rule in the Hollywood book. Benton and Newman had already stripped out the artsy, poetic dialogue of Broadway.14 They discarded all the backstory and motivation that playwrights and screenwriters were so proud of. There are no revelations or explanations in Bonnie & Clyde. We don’t need to know why the characters do the things they do because we see them as the people they are. Bonnie and Clyde would have the unmistakable panache of Hollywood stars — Warren Beatty made sure of that — but they would also be presented unapologetically as criminals. There is no attempt to explain or excuse their behavior, and they never express regret for their crimes.
Beatty and Penn shot virtually all of the film on location, giving the bit parts to locals, who looked like real people instead of character actors who had been hanging around Hollywood for the past forty years.15 The camera work is sometimes a bit arty and contrived, as in the enormous close-ups in the opening scenes, and sometimes “unfinished,” as in Clyde’s fight scene with the Texas Ranger, when the actors frequently fly out of the frame, as though the camera were not ready for the action.
The Things That Turn Up in the Streets These Days
The film begins with deliberate ambiguity — a series of sepia-tinted photographs of rural life that appear and disappear with a click, giving way to an all-black screen. The pictures go by so quickly that they seem random.16 Interspersed with the pictures are the names of the leads and then the title, appearing in white letters that fade to blood red.17 This probably isn’t going to be a happy picture.
An old record starts playing indistinctly in the background, slowly increasing in volume to the point that we can make out the lyrics, but you really had to be an old-timer to identify the singer and the song — Rudy Vallee doing “Deep Night.” Eventually, we get a little written data as well, police blotter information on first Bonnie and then Clyde. The photos are so “authentic” that we can’t tell, the first time around, at least, if we’re seeing the real Bonnie and Clyde or the Hollywood version.
After such austerity we cut to a huge close-up of blood-red lips, as Miss Bonnie Parker prepares to greet the day in the privacy of her boudoir. Her nude lounging was probably inspired by Brigitte Bardot‘s tanning session in … And God Created Woman. Definitely, a great way to start a picture, and it’s dramatically justified as well, totally, because when Bonnie engages Clyde in a conversation au naturel, we learn something important about her. She’s just a bit of a tease. The abrupt cutting here, which makes us think that little bits and pieces have been left out, and which we’ll see again, particularly in the “frustration” scene when Bonnie is unsuccessfully trying to arouse Clyde, comes directly from Godard’s Breathless.
Bonnie’s so intrigued by Clyde’s larcenous intentions regarding her mother’s automobile that she rushes downstairs sans bra and even sans drawers.18 Her galumphing descent, knees and feet wildly splayed, suggests a certain lack of refinement.
Mrs. Parker’s little Ford is one of many, many antique cars that we’ll see in this picture, almost all of them, remarkably enough, in mint condition, with sparkling chrome.19 This is one of the subtle ways Bonnie & Clyde improves upon reality. It’s a lot more fun, after all, to steal a pretty car than an ugly one.20
The wonderful conversation that Bonnie and Clyde have as they wander down the main street of what looks to be a near ghost town establishes their characters for us once and for all.21 Banal but bursting with life, they have a crude animal vitality that will not be denied. Clyde’s so far down on the evolutionary totem pole that he thinks to charm a lady by showing her his mutilated foot, as though he were an exhibit in a sideshow. Bonnie, for her part, just can’t resist a man with a loaded gun.
Sporting a natty double-breasted blazer in subdued chocolate and a smooth-looking white Borsalino, Clyde looks just a little well-dressed for a man fresh out of state prison. Even Bonnie’s simple dress “was cut on a bias, and it swung,” as Dunaway puts it in her autobiography.22 Authenticity does have its limits. Beatty was determined to make an art film with stars, an art film that would sell tickets.
Clyde has just enough money in his slacks to buy Bonnie a “Coca-Cola” even though, strangely, the bottles they’re drinking from are not Coke bottles.23 The camera work here is deliberately unconventional — for example, the shot of Bonnie framed by Clyde’s arm as he takes a manly swig of Coke.24 There is also a superabundance of phallic symbols, including the bottles themselves, Clyde’s trembling matchstick, and of course his gun, which so captures Bonnie’s attention.25
Once you take out your gun, of course, you’ve got to use it. The film carefully distances us from the action, the first step in the long buildup designed to catch us off guard when Clyde shoots the foolhardy bank clerk in the face following their first successful bank robbery.26 As they make their getaway, Bonnie’s so excited she can’t contain herself. It’s doubtful that any American film had ever shown its heroine in such a state of unrestrained sexual arousal. All the good taste, hints, double entendres, and other evasions of the past were simply discarded without a second look.
Clyde, of course, isn’t interested. Impotence was a “daring” topic in the sixties, at least for films. Hemingway had made it famous, not to say a cliché, in The Sun Also Rises.27 Whether or not anyone could accept Warren Beatty as impotent, it’s a great plot device. Even though Bonnie and Clyde are together, they’re not together. Their relationship is still unresolved. Bonnie’s brooding discontent, which initiated the film, remains intact. Poor girl! Who wouldn’t want to comfort her, to bring a smile to that beautiful face?
But if Clyde can’t walk the walk, he can sure talk the talk. In the first of his three remarkable speeches, he tells Bonnie that she’s like him, she’s “different.”28 (Yes, I know I said the “old Hollywood” films were full of bad speeches. Well, this is a good speech.)
Clyde’s rap has a palpable subtext. Bonnie’s going to be a star, and he’s going to be her manager. Clyde’s next speech, delivered in a diner, continues the idea. We sense Bonnie sensing that Clyde is different. Because he’s impotent, he’ll live through her, instead of possessing her. She’s been laid, after all. She’s done that. What she hasn’t done is be famous. And from the way she looks at Clyde, we know she’s thinking that maybe he can teach her how it’s done. To celebrate their partnership, they steal a convertible. Hey, this crime stuff is fun!
We cut to Bonnie waking up in an abandoned farmhouse, and then we segue into a little gunplay, both characters almost beside themselves with the sheer joy of shootin’. As they shoot, an old farmer comes around the side of the house, giving them another look at the life they won’t be living.
The shots of the departing family are taken directly from the famous Walker Evans photographs included in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by James Agee. Arthur Penn tells us that the scene is intended to show the failures of capitalism.29 but Bonnie and Clyde aren’t going in for bank robbing because they can’t be farmers. They’re doing it because they want to pull themselves free of the restrictions and compromises of ordinary life. They don’t want to be like other people. They want to be the people other people wish they could be like.
The two get all slicked up for their first robbery, Clyde in a tight pinstripe and cap and Bonnie in a chic sweater, scarf, and beret combo that looks just a bit closer to Bergdorf Goodmans than West Dallas. This is, very obviously, their “first time.” Clyde, close to terrified, tries to appear cool and confident, while Bonnie is desperately anxious not to embarrass her man.30 We also see that while Clyde is Bonnie’s “manager,” she is Clyde’s audience. Her elegant laughter, when the bank turns out to be as busted as they are, is far too “witty,” too upper-middle-class for Bonnie, and seems to be inspired by the famous “Garbo laughs” sequence in Ninotchka.
After that fiasco, problems with their newly stolen four-cylinder Ford coupe prompt a stop at a filling station, where they encounter the ineffable C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), the first hippie ever to appear on the big screen.31 Sizing him up as another misfit, they adopt him more or less as they would a puppy, someone to keep them company. We then jump ahead to a seriously unromantic ménage a trois — Bonnie, restless and wide awake; Clyde feigning sleep; and little C. W., sleeping like a baby.32
The money that C. W. takes from the filling station sure comes in handy, because Bonnie and Clyde splurge on another set of glad rags for their second attempt at a bank job, which almost goes awry when C. W. insists on showing off his gift for parallel parking. (This always struck me as far-fetched.) Their delayed departure leads to the inevitable: the shooting death of an innocent man.
Bonnie at least doesn’t think it’s her problem. While Clyde bitches and C. W. weeps for shame, she just wants to watch Gold Diggers of 1933 (anachronistically, because we’ve been told that Bonnie and Clyde got together in 193133). The next day Clyde tells Bonnie that he wants her to leave. Now that he’s wanted for murder, “things are going to get rough. You could have a rich man if you tried.” The camera lets us see what we already knew, that he doesn’t want her to leave. Her loyalty is so emphatic (“I don’t want no rich man!”) that Clyde attempts to make love to her, but his efforts, despite Bonnie’s best efforts, end in an embarrassing failure. It’s a touching scene, but Beatty, wearing a snow-white wife beater to set off his muscular shoulders, looks a bit too Hollywood.34
To further thwart Bonnie’s desire for quality time with Clyde, Buck and Blanche Barrow show up for a visit. Blanche is set up as Bonnie’s opposite and the source of endless tension.35 The five head up to Joplin, Missouri for a little peace and quiet,, which of course is not what they get. While Bonnie is trying to raise the group’s cultural level with a little poetry, the law shows up.36 Clyde, Buck, and C. W. each kill a man, and the fat is on the fire. The gang has been fairly blooded, and there is no turning back.
The flight from Joplin turns into a shouting match between Bonnie and Blanche, as moll and preacher’s daughter collide.37 When Clyde tells Bonnie to cool it she demands a private discussion. They stop and argue in a golden wheat field, alternately calling each other ignorant hillbillies until a frustrated Bonnie makes it too personal: “The only special thing about you, Clyde Barrow, is your peculiar ideas about love-making, which is no love-making at all.” Terrified at having gone too far, she quickly reconciles with him.
The next day, they steal a paper and read delightedly (except for Blanche) about their bloody deeds. Then they stop by a lake, apparently so Clyde can take a piss, when they are interrupted by Frank Hamer, the fierce old Texas Ranger who will prove to be their nemesis.38 A photo session with Frank goes awry when he spits in Bonnie’s face. Clyde, hysterical with rage, almost drowns him, but Buck “helps” Clyde to load Hamer into a row boat, setting him adrift. As Clyde’s shouts fade in the distance, Penn shows us the boat floating off into an idyllic woodland scene.
To demonstrate their loss of amateur status, we next see the gang pull a stylish bank job, everyone in fancy duds and knowing just what to do.39) Clyde, in a beau geste, allows a humble farmer to keep his cash, an incident based on fact.40) The chase scene that follows is intercut with brief vignettes showing the bank officials glorying in the publicity the robbery has created. The guard who lost his hat tells a reporter “There I was, staring into the face of death” and he and the bank president are photographed while pointing proudly to the bullet hole left by Clyde’s gun.
The tension between Bonnie and Blanche continues to escalate when Blanche demands an equal share of the loot. When Clyde reminds her for the umpteenth time that Blanche is family, she demands to see her family, her momma.41 Before they do so, however, they need a new car, and they end up joyriding with the owners, Eugene (Gene Wilder) and Velma (Evans Evans). The gang gets to do its jes’ folks routine in a bit that proved to be Wilder’s route to the big time, but Bonnie throws a fit when it turns out that Eugene is an undertaker. That’s more of the future than she wants to see.42
The next day, Bonnie’s mood hasn’t improved. She disappears into a cornfield and Clyde races after her. The camera backs away so that their figures almost disappear in the broad field, while the dark shadow of a cloud slides over them.43 When he catches up with her they have another touching reconciliation (we hear “movie music” for the first time in the picture) and Clyde agrees to take her to see her family.
The family reunion, red filtered and shot in slow motion, is a bit too artsy, a bit too Walker Evans. However, the dialogue is quite interesting. Clyde’s clumsy lies and awkward truths (“At this point, we ain’t headed toward. We’re running from.”) suggest to us that time is running out, and Bonnie’s mother lets them know it. (“You’d best keep running, Clyde Barrow.”)
The gang holes up in some tourist cabins, with nothing more to amuse them than C. W.’s new tattoo. We get some more laughs at Blanche’s expense — she’s a bad girl now, wearing tight slacks and smoking, but still enough of a sissy to shriek when she touches C. W.’s chest. Bonnie gets a bit high-hat, telling the others that if they want to play with C. W.’s chest they should go in the next cabin, even though we’re told that she assisted in the tattoo’s design.44 When Blanche and C. W. take off to get some chicken dinners, Clyde and Bonnie have another “comforting” scene. A few hours later, the law shows up for a second, bloodier shoot-out. Buck is wounded in the face and Blanche is blinded by flying glass.
Their world collapsing, the gang escapes in a car filled with screams and blood, finding refuge in the woods. The camera retreats to show the headlights shining in the darkness around them. The morning gives no relief, because the law has caught up with them. Buck is killed, Blanche is captured, and both Bonnie and Clyde are wounded. Only C. W., faithful and reliable as ever, is unhurt, and it is he that saves the day, taking them to hide out at his father’s place.
This last decision proves unwise. Ivan Moss (Dub Taylor) is the opposite of Bonnie and Clyde, a hideous, unkillable old man, his life a ceaseless round of toil. In a conspiracy of the old against the young, he links up with Frank Hamer and they agree to set a trap for the two outlaws.
During her convalescence, Bonnie writes a new poem, called “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” in the film, although Bonnie’s original title was apparently “The End of the Road.” Clyde is moved. “You told my story.” He was going to make her a star, and now she’s made him one. He’s fulfilled. Like a salmon who’s reached the headwaters, he’s ready to spawn at last.
The film treats the lovers’ coupling with high romantic seriousness, but recovers nicely as Clyde congratulates himself on his “perfect” performance. We get another little twist of the knife when Bonnie asks Clyde what he would do if they had it all to do over again. His plan, that they would live in one state and commit their crimes in another, obviously doesn’t live up to her expectations. Dunaway’s half smile is hard to read, but we don’t have to strain for deeper meanings. We know Bonnie would never leave Clyde.
The next day we see them in town. Bonnie has abandoned her stylish outfits and wears a simple country dress reminiscent of the one she wore when she first met Clyde. In a very inside bit, Clyde pops a lens from his dark glasses, emulating Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless.45 Clyde spots a sheriff’s car and quickly gathers Bonnie in, leading us to hope they’ve eluded the trap that we know has been set for them.
Instead, they’re headed for perhaps the most imitated 54 seconds of film, the elaborately designed “ballet of death” that concludes Bonnie & Clyde. Despite all that’s been written about the film, there’s surprisingly little detail about the planning of the sequence. Penn has discussed his fascination with Kurosawa’s approach to film violence and, inspired by the actual facts of the death of Bonnie and Clyde,46 set out to outdo the master, using all the technology that Hollywood had placed at his disposal.
The torrent of death that descends on the pair ends the film with a finality that has seldom been matched. But despite the brutality, we aren’t made to feel that Bonnie and Clyde’s fate was unfair. They chose to live without regard for consequences, and such a decision has consequences. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, they’re gorgeous monsters. We revel in their crimes and in their punishments. Having lived life without limits, they’ll suffer death the same way. Bonnie & Clyde lacks Shakespeare’s poetry and Mozart’s music, but it does possess the visceral appeal to the senses and the imagination that is the unique property of film.
The immense success of Bonnie & Clyde brought the principals all the fame they could have imagined. Given the perversities of human nature, and of Hollywood, it’s not surprising that none of them ever really equaled this first great achievement. Penn’s subsequent films were dismayingly pedestrian. Beatty, who could do anything he wanted, was never quite equal to his enormous freedom. Dunaway’s ability to select good roles seemed to desert her entirely after the seventies. Hackman has fashioned one of the strongest careers in “modern” Hollywood, but he’ll always be remembered as Buck Barrow.
Benton and Newman attempted to duplicate the “tragic farce” formula in There Was a Crooked Man (1970) and Bad Company (1972) with little success. They worked as a team into the mid-seventies, collaborating, bizarrely, on a musical version of Superman for the stage. Newman, who died recently, worked on all three Superman movies, apparently making enough money to slide into retirement. Benton, on the other hand, turned successfully to directing, scoring huge successes with “sensitive” films like the antifeminist Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the famous weepie Places in the Heart (1984). Estelle Parsons won an Oscar for her performance as Blanche Barrow and is still working in her mid-seventies. According to Leonard Maltin, she’s “best suited to playing shrill neurotics and wild-eyed fanatics.” The “homuncular, elfin, inexplicably popular” Michael J. Pollard is also still working, “playing virtually the same offbeat, imbecilic character” in every film (Maltin again).
If You’re Still in Need of Something to Read
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, edited by Lester D. Friedman, brings together a number of interesting essays on the film, including articles by both Penn and Newman. Friedman also wrote Bonnie and Clyde, a short book (80 pages) on the film. His excellent essay on the development of the script is available online here. Benton and Newman’s script (the final version, which served as the basis for the film) is online here.
The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde, by John Treherne, is a skeptical but straight-forward rendition of the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Bonnie and Clyde: A Twenty-First Century Update, by James R. Knight and Jonathan Davis, the most recent book on the pair, describes their lives in great detail and has lots of excellent photographs.
Faye Dunaway’s autobiography, Looking for Gatsby, has lots of good information on the making of Bonnie & Clyde and gives a reasonably clear-eyed look at what it’s like to devote your life to the camera lens. Two biographies of Warren Beatty, The Sexiest Man Alive,by Ellis Amburn, and Warren Beatty: The Last Great Lover of Hollywood, by John Parker, are gossipy but worthwhile.
The Bonnie & Clyde website has a very nice design, echoing the opening of the film, and also has the complete text of both The Story of Bonnie and Clyde and The Story of Suicide Sal.
The film itself is available on a no-frills DVD without a word of commentary from anyone.
- You liked The Graduate? That film was so tasteful, so “New York.” I hated it back in 1968 but had to sit through it three times because my sergeant had a crush on Katherine Ross. As for Easy Rider, if I had been as stoned watching it as Dennis Hopper was when he directed it, I guess it would have been cool. The only competition for Bonnie & Clyde is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which came absolutely out of nowhere in 1965. But Strangelove was satire, which somehow made it less threatening. Strangelove spawned a number of “shocking” black comedies, including Lord Love a Duck and The Loved One, which were both awful. [↩]
- The “dedication” of Breathless to Monogram Pictures, the source of many cheap gangster films, is a classic in-joke. [↩]
- The randomness, the absurdity, and the violence, of Albert Camus’s The Stranger hovers over all these films. But what’s really absurd is that millions of insanely overprivileged, overfed American teenagers have been forced to read this book, or at least the Cliff Notes. Somewhere, Albert Camus must be smiling. [↩]
- Bonnie’s mother refused to allow them to be buried together. Among other things, Bonnie had gotten married before she ever met Clyde. Hubbie had been out of the picture for some time, in state prison, but Bonnie had never gotten around to divorcing him. [↩]
- Clyde was apparently introduced to homosexuality in prison, but he didn’t seem to like it much, because he murdered the man who raped him. I’ve read various takes on Clyde’s bedroom proclivities — that he was impotent and liked to watch other men have sex with Bonnie, or that he forced other gang members to submit to him sexually as a way of establishing dominance. However, neither of the two books I’ve read on Parker and Barrow even bother to discuss the possibility that the pair’s relationship might have departed from the straight and narrow. It’s particularly odd in the case of John Treherne’s The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde, because Treherne is quite impatient with the “myth” of Bonnie and Clyde and might be expected to favor, or at least mention, anything derogatory. [↩]
- “We had to make movies as one has to breathe,” they later wrote, which is how you talk if you live in New York. Aren’t you glad you don’t? [↩]
- At least, that was his excuse. [↩]
- According to the story, Godard wanted to start shooting on location in Texas right away. When informed that the weather wouldn’t permit it, he supposedly complained that “I speak of cinema and you speak of meteorology.” [↩]
- The film, about a comedian, is almost surely based on the life of Lenny Bruce, the last word in fifties “edge.” It marks the only screen appearance of 1963 Playmate of the Year Donna Michelle (as “the girl”). I wonder how she got the part? [↩]
- I was at a writers’ conference in Montana once, having lunch on a lake with a young woman. A snake appeared, rustling through the leaves, and I thought it might be helpful to explain to her how to recognize poisonous snakes. “Alan,” she said, “I’m from East Texas. You don’t have to tell me about snakes.” [↩]
- The scenes are invariably shot in the golden light of either early morning or late afternoon. According to one photographer, “You always shoot in the afternoon. In the morning, the light’s always getting worse. In the afternoon, it’s always getting better.” [↩]
- In an echt Broadway play, the “big speech” would make reference to the play’s title — “like a streetcar named Desire”; “like a raisin in the sun.” “The splendor in the grass,” a line from Wordsworth, is quoted three times in Splendor in the Grass. [↩]
- In The Chase, a young Robert Redford plays “Bubber” (yes, Bubber), an escaped convict in a heroically unbuttoned shirt who’s been tramping through swamps for days to reach his beloved, Jane Fonda. “I know I look like hell,” he tells her, when in fact he looks like a young god, or even a young Robert Redford. [↩]
- They (wisely) saved their effusions for their parenthetical comments in the script, which ramble on and on about how the characters should be looking and feeling and include numerous references to various art films. [↩]
- The Chase included such familiar faces as Grady Sutton, who first appeared in pictures in The Freshman back in 1925, and Bruce Cabot, best known for saving Fay Wray in King Kong (1931). [↩]
- Actually there is a pattern of sorts, although you have to watch the film about ten times to see it. The first series, preceding Warren Beatty’s name, shows a boy growing up (more or less), while the series preceding Dunaway’s name shows a girl doing the same. A series of group photos precedes the names of the other principals, while the two pictures appearing before the title show a girl and a boy (Bonnie and Clyde, duh). The pictures of Bonnie and Clyde at the end of the series are, unsurprisingly, of Dunaway and Beatty. And since Beatty’s the producer, his picture is in much better focus. It doesn’t appear that any of the photos are of the real Bonnie and Clyde. [↩]
- The all-black screen was a mainstay of the brief “American New Wave” era, which ran from the release of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) to the release of Star Wars (1976). Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) begins in a very similar fashion. [↩]
- Father Sullivan, the Catholic priest representing the Legion of Decency on the review board that ultimately approved Bonnie & Clyde, claims to have seen pubic hair at this point. Nice eye, padre! [↩]
- Many of them also have two-tone paint jobs, all-leather interiors, chromed spare tire holders, etc. Beatty’s first film, Splendor in the Grass (1961), directed by Elia Kazan, was full of old-time cars (the film was set in the twenties) and old-time music as well (but Kansas City jazz rather than Appalachian blue-grass). In Breathless, the hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has a great knack for finding, and stealing, expensive American cars, including a Cadillac Eldorado and a Thunderbird. Take that, Yankee pigs! [↩]
- The cars were also souped up to make them perform in a way that contemporary audiences would find exciting. Most of the cars in east Texas in the Great Depression were likely to be second-hand Model T Fords, with a top speed of about thirty-five. However, Clyde Barrow’s favorite car, the Ford V-8, which would not become available until 1932, could do about ninety. In 1934 Ford received a letter, ostensibly from Clyde, praising the V-8. When Bonnie & Clyde became a hit, Ford ran ads reproducing the letter. [↩]
- Just for the record, in real life when Bonnie met Clyde, Clyde was making hot chocolate in the kitchen of one of Bonnie’s friends. [↩]
- Talk about chick talk! Theadora Van Runkle did the clothes for Bonnie & Clyde, quite possibly the most famous wardrobe in film. According to Van Runkle, the six-foot-four (in theory) Beatty was so worried about being upstaged by the five-foot-seven Dunaway that he told Van Runkle to keep Dunaway in flats for the entire picture. [↩]
- The classic “hobble skirt” Coke bottle, which isn’t seen so much any more, was introduced in 1923. Perhaps the Coke people didn’t think that Bonnie & Clyde was an appropriate vehicle for their product. [↩]
- Clyde looks like he’s trying to drink the whole bottle, but when he brings it down from his lips we see that he’s scarcely swallowed any. Beatty enjoyed shooting each scene thirty to forty times and no doubt didn’t want to get filled up. [↩]
- Discussion of phallic symbols was de rigeur in any serious film criticism in the fifties and sixties, particularly with regard to Ingmar Bergman’s films. Actual phalluses had yet to make an appearance. [↩]
- This famous shot is, famously, borrowed from Eisenstein’s Ten Days That Shook the World. [↩]
- Both Penn and Beatty were (naturally) adamant about discarding any suggestion of homosexuality or bisexuality. Apparently, it was Penn who pumped for impotence. In The Seven Samurai, Katsushiro (Ko Kimura), the apprentice samurai, can’t get it up the first time around. [↩]
- The funny, period hand gesture that Clyde gives Bonnie when he says “The first time I saw you” is one of the best things in the picture. [↩]
- Penn, and I suspect Beatty, compound the sin by having Clyde shake hands with Davis, the black field hand. Clyde Barrow would never have shaken hands with a black man. [↩]
- When Bonnie asks him “What are you waiting for?” it’s not out of impatience. She thinks she must be missing something. [↩]
- In The Chase, a no doubt deeply embarrassed Paul Williams appears as a “wild” teenager, although he looks more like a thirty-year-old midget. [↩]
- A snoring baby. [↩]
- Other missteps include campaign posters for FDR, which wouldn’t have started appearing anywhere until the late summer of 1932. The posters probably wouldn’t have appeared in Texas at all, because in those days the Democratic candidate always carried southern states like Texas. [↩]
- And where’d he get that tan? State prison? [↩]
- The real Blanche Barrow was very much alive when Bonnie & Clyde was made and sued Warner Bros. for their representation of her. She definitely had grounds for complaint. In real life, Blanche was the same age as Bonnie and, judging from her mug shots, better looking. (Bonnie had a pretty big nose.) She was not a preacher’s daughter and married Buck knowing that he was an escaped prisoner and twice divorced. Presumably, she was not looking for stability. [↩]
- The doggerel that Dunaway reads — “Sal was a gal of rare beauty” — is from Bonnie’s “other” poem, “The Story of Suicide Sal.” In elementary school Bonnie won a medal as the spelling champion of Cement City, Texas. (An English major with attitude! How cool is that!) As an adult she was very fond of “true detective” magazines. Her two extant poems are littered with kitschy coinages such as “scion of gangland” and “gangdom,” drawn from these publications. [↩]
- Bonnie, like so many memorable movie heroines, is a definite tomboy. When the gang moves into their rented home in Joplin, Blanche is delighted by the kitchen. Bonnie never sets foot in it. The real Bonnie Parker naturally did not do a lot of cooking but was making red beans and cornbread when the shooting started in Joplin. Blanche’s hysterical reaction to the shooting in the film is entirely fictitious. In fact, she waited until the shooting stopped and then went out and called her dog Snowball, ignoring the dead and wounded cops in the yard. [↩]
- Although Hamer did organize the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, he never met them. He was hired to head up a “get Clyde Barrow” task force after Clyde and an accomplice murdered two unsuspecting police officers in Grapevine, Texas. Hamer, also still alive in 1967, also sued Warner Bros., settling out of court. Clyde’s little speech about the poor folk protecting them from the laws is made up out of whole cloth, probably by Penn. [↩]
- When Clyde shoots a bank guard’s hat off, it is once again a bit too Hollywood. One also might wonder (again) where the gang got the money for the new clothes and where in particular the rowdy Buck Barrow picked up a taste for stylish tweeds. (State prison? [↩]
- Clyde could be magnanimous. He sometimes gave hostages $5 or $10 to cover their expenses. But he also frequently threatened to kill them, and it appears that on one occasion he did so. (Clyde denied the murder but was identified on the basis of a photograph. [↩]
- Both Bonnie and Clyde were devoted to their families and visited them frequently. This contributed to their downfall, because they would never quit Texas for good. After their deaths, the State of Texas successfully tried many of their relatives for harboring a fugitive, sentencing them to short terms. [↩]
- Bonnie and Clyde did pick up an undertaker once, but the real Bonnie proved to be more philosophical. “You’ll probably enjoy embalming us,” she told him. “Promise me you will.” [↩]
- At the time, this was a happy accident. Today, computer technology probably allows directors to generate portentous shadows at will. [↩]
- Perhaps this bit was left over from the first draft, when C. W.’s character was supposed to be involved with Bonnie. Apparently, the tattoo had to be left in to provide motivation for C. W.’s father to inform on the gang. [↩]
- And why is that cool? Um, because it’s so existential. They didn’t plan it. It just happened! [↩]
- The sequence is quite reasonably close to the facts, except that Clyde was simply driving along at a slow rate of speed when the shooting started. He was killed by the first shot and Bonnie a few seconds later. About 80 rounds were fired. Thousands viewed their blood-stained corpses at separate funeral homes. After Clyde’s death, members of the Barrow family went on a “Crime Does Not Pay” tour, talking about Clyde and Buck. [↩]